Happy 15th Anniversary to The Roots’ sixth studio album The Tipping Point, originally released July 13, 2004.
The Philadelphia-based hip-hop band The Roots have long been revered as a collection of true school hip-hop warriors. While it’s a description that some of its members have chafed at, it rings true, as The Roots are one of the most beloved groups still making rap music. Which is why The Tipping Point, the group’s sixth album, released 15 years ago, came as such a shock to a chunk of their fanbase.
The legendary Roots crew is a collective spearheaded by drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and super emcee Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, and includes such members as bassist Leonard “Hub” Hubbard and keyboardist Kamal Gray. With their fourth album Things Fall Apart (1999), they found a way to balance creating music that appealed to their core audience and the critics, while enjoying the best sales of their career. Five years later, they released their sixth album, The Tipping Point, which proved to be a divisive proposition. At a time when hip-hop and pop music were becoming even more synonymous, many of their fans believed that this “conscious” crew was creating music designed to get record sales.
The Tipping Point was released just a year-and-a-half after Phrenology (2002), another greatly scrutinized album by The Roots, albeit for completely different reasons. Originally conceived as Black Thought’s solo album entitled Masterpiece Theatre, it was shelved and scrapped due to label complications. Thought took most of the completed songs and transformed them into the spine of Phrenology. However, much of the rest of the album featured The Roots at their most experimental, and it often made for challenging listening.
The Tipping Point was viewed as a course-correction. It is certainly the group’s most accessible work. Gone are the six-and-a-half minute abstract jazz movements and seven-minute spoken-word pieces, now replaced by more conventional production that made for much more standard fare. Which seems odd, given that Questlove has said the album’s soundscape was borne out of extensive freeform jam sessions by the group. The project is also, by design, an even more Black Thought-centric album than any of its precursors. Malik B was no longer recording with the group, and Dice Raw appears only on the chorus of one track. Hence, the spotlight firmly rests on Mr. Trotter.
None of which makes The Tipping Point a bad album. On the contrary, it’s actually pretty good, and Black Thought excels while carrying the majority of the album’s weight on his frame.
The album starts off strong with “Star,” the group’s hip-hop reinterpretation of Sly and The Family Stone’s “Everybody is a Star.” After beginning with a portion from the song’s source material, Black Thought drops his rhymes over a heavy guitar and horn groove, chronicling the unwavering desire by many to achieve stardom, while promising never to compromise his own lyrical content. He professes to be “rocking sharp so the speakers’ll bleed / I run a triathlon, you wouldn't see me fatigued.” In the album’s extensive and frequently cryptic liner notes, Questlove maintains that it’s one of the five best songs that the group ever recorded.
The Tipping Point also marked the return of Scott Storch, who was the group’s original keyboardist. After producing the group’s most successful single, “You Got Me,” Storch had branched off from the crew during the late 1990s, starting to produce for the biggest names in rap and pop music. He worked extensively with Dr. Dre during this period, creating “Still D.R.E.” and ghost-producing some of 50 Cent’s biggest hits. By 2004, he was working with the newly solo Beyoncé and had produced the Terror Squad’s “Lean Back,” one of the most successful hip-hop singles ever.
“Don’t Say Nuthin’,” the album’s first single, is a clear Storch creation. Featuring layers of murmuring, pulsating keys, it sounds like a slightly grittier version of what was blowing up on the radio at the time. But Black Thought plays the whole thing as a parody of whatever G-Unit track was hot at that minute, intentionally mumbling through the chorus. He then spits three solidly dope verses, rapping, “What I spin put ’em out on a limb / Got tears, got blood, got sweat, leaking out of the pen / Y’all fake n****s not setting a trend / We never listen to them / It’s like trying to take a piss in the wind.”
“I Don’t Care” is a more upbeat creation that sounds like a feel-good summer track. A product of the first few hours of the first day’s worth of jam sessions, Black Thought flows over smooth guitar licks, informing the audience that “You know I'm certified sick / I came from the corner where nobody got shit / Took the cards I was dealt, turned it into hot spit.”
The mellow “Stay Cool” features Black Thought blessing a sample of Al Hirt’s “Harlem Hendo,” best-known for its use by De La Soul on “Ego Trippin’ Pt. 2” from their 1993 LP Buhloone Mindstate. Maintaining his cool in the face of adversity, Thought raps, “24-7 chilling, tougher than penicillin / From the block where the crooked cops killing like a villain / Children, in the hood getting rocked by they buildings / And brothers cross the board getting knocked by the millions.”
On “Web,” The Roots strip things down to the bare essence, as Black Thought kicks a continuous verse over just a Questlove drum track and a few sparse bass notes. Originally intended as The Tipping Point’s opening track, a la “Table of Contents” on Things Fall Apart, Thought is in full beast mode, channeling pure lyrical aggression and flowing effortlessly for over 80 bars without pause. He delivers the album’s best performance, rapping, “Professional type, I’m adjusting my mic / Go to war kid I'll give you any weapon you like / Give you something to run from, bust off your dum-dums / Stop kid, that hot shit you know where it come from.”
In a similar vein, “Boom!” is an even more overt acknowledgment of the late ’80s and hip-hop’s golden era. The bombastic track sounds like something Marley Marl himself would have created, as Questlove channels Clyde Stubblefield as the horn section blares. At first it seems like Thought is going to use the tracks as “Web Pt. 2,” as he spits another rugged verse: “I been gladly serving / Any y’all cats wanna act determined / Spit pesticides for rats and vermin / Seem like none of y'all chumps is learning.” Then for the second and third verses, Thought goes beyond just paying tribute to his favorite emcees, flawlessly mimicking the voice and delivery of first Big Daddy Kane and then Kool G Rap, performing verses from “Wrath of the Kane” and “Poison” respectively.
For an album that’s often decried for trying to appeal too much to more pop musical sensibilities, there’s an awful lot of social commentary on The Tipping Point. Musically, songs like “Duck Down” and “Guns Are Drawn” might have a lot in common with the Storch-produced radio hits at the time, but in terms of content, they delve into the reality of rampant street violence that embroil inner-cities throughout the country.
On “Why (What’s Going On?),” Black Thought wades into the sense of despair and hopelessness that can grip the populations living in these areas, struggling to survive and weary after all the effort. Thought raps, “When I dream it's hounds on my heels gaining momentum / I'm tired, can't get uninspired or quit running / I can feel they only inches behind, I escape, I survive / Somehow I gotta decide how much I want it / Or is anybody listening without a pot to piss in? / If I disappear I wonder if the world will know I’m missing.”
Though Black Thought carries the weight throughout the majority of The Tipping Point, he occasionally enlists some guests. He splits emcee duties with Jean Grae and the then teenage Mack Dub on “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” featuring the soulful rap crooning by Devin the Dude. Black Thought cuts loose with Skillz and Truck North on “The Mic,” one of the album’s hidden bonus cuts. It’s a rambunctious, joyful track where Dave Chappelle provides both the chorus and a few hilarious adlibs and includes backing vocals by Ol’ Dirty Bastard. It’s a magnificently random collection of lyrical and comedic talent the likes of which hasn’t been assembled since.
The Roots do let their musical talents really shine on The Tipping Point’s bonus cuts. “Din Da” is a cover of a song by the same name German dance music artist George Kranz. In the United States, the song is known for its usage in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. The song features a continuous call-and-response between the vocalist and the drummer, with the drummer re-interpreting the vocalist shouts into percussion form. In this way, it functions as a sequel of sorts to “Essaywhuman,” which appeared on The Root’s Do You Want More?!!!??! (1995) and was a staple of their live shows. UK versions of the album also feature a nearly 11-minute cover of Booker T & The MG’s “Melting Pot,” an instrumental track in which every member of the band gets their shine with their respective solos, including the flutist.
It’s immaterial whether or not The Tipping Point is as “real” as Thing Falls Apart or as out there as Phrenology or as broadly appealing as Green Day’s American Idiot (2004). It’s a good album on its own terms. If nothing else, The Tipping Point served an ideal delivery system for a vintage Black Thought performance. These days, when Thought’s verses on albums by The Roots seem to come at a premium, an album more or less centered on him being the best emcee he can be is quite welcome. The Tipping Point might not have been what fans envisioned a Roots album to be in 2004, but even a “pop” album by the group is better than most albums by other artists.